PULP Profiles: John Williams & Philip Glass

31 Mar


Disclaimer: this post was inspired by E.E. Jones, whose suggestion that Williams and Glass are a perfect convergence of high and low provides the core for the post. Thanks for the appropriation of intellectual property.



Would a mass cultural icon be successful without at least some inherent merit? And would a dense, intellectual playwright get as far if he or she did not tune into mass culture in order to tailor their work to a large audience. The exact point at which high and low art or culture intersect is not a given and nor can it be judged totally objectively, but it has been—for many years now—the crucible in which Pulp has been formed.



The balance between these two facets has shifted gradually as mass appeal and media messages inform value judgements over culture. Ancient Greek theatre may have been mass entertainment, but the masses involved were only those who could afford to attend theatrical spectacle. Shakespeare was perhaps one of the most comprehensively Pulp figures in his appropriation of story, his neologisms and his writing for the masses. Greeks and Shakespeare were mass, low culture which was—due to extant social circumstance or historical relevance—transported to the higher plain. The advent of mass media and decentralised entertainment means that media popularity can now determine whether a modern-day cultural figure—even if distinctly low—might transcend that label.



Philip Glass—composer and contemporary musical auteur of sorts—has siphoned popular music from David Bowie (his “Low” and “Heroes” Symphonies), Leonard Cohen, Talking Heads and many more into modern-day minimalist operas, cantata, symphonies and more, acting as a huge influence over modern music whilst being himself a Pulp synthesiser of modernity. John Williams—also trained at Juilliard in New York and the person holding the record for most Oscar nominations for a living person (including those who have shuffled off this mortal coil, he comes in second only to Walt Disney)—is a neoromantic composer of movie soundtracks, having written scores for all but one Steven Spielberg film (The Color Purple), leaving his famous shark-baiting or sabre-wielding motifs fixed in audiences’ minds. So who is high and who is low? Both are both and neither is either, but the trajectories their careers have taken intersect until—in Pulp terms—they hold somewhat comparable places.



John Williams (b.1932) began his arranging and conducting career in the US Air Force and—like Glass—studied piano in the mid-fifties at Juilliard. Working as a club jazz pianist, with composer Henry Mancini and with singer Frankie Laine, Williams’ place in the music scene fused much of his modern-classical studies with the more flamboyant worlds of jazz and pop, music and television. He went directly to soundtrack composition in the late 50s with Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel. Later scores for films Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Goodbye Mr Chips (1969) received Oscar nominations, but his adapted Fiddler on the Roof (1971) score won him his first. Since then he has received 45 nominations.



Pulp attempts to be iconic, rising above the media scrabble for attention, and Williams cannot be said to lack instant recognition. After The Sugarland Express (1974), Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws featured Williams’ two-note suspense theme, now more or less synonymous with approaching danger. Following a recommendation from Spielberg, Williams worked on Star Wars (1977) and its sequels with George Lucas, who demanded an epic symphonic score à la Richard Strauss via golden age Hollywood. Grand Wagnerian styling and the use of repetitive leitmotif made the soundtrack immensely successful, and it was named the greatest ever American movie score in 2005.



With his themes for Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and Richard Donner’s Superman he elaborated on his grand orchestral sound with simple motifs representing character and scene (in E.T. one scene was shot to coincide with the score). The scores followed patterns which established a vital link between image and sound. Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Christopher Reeve as Superman, David Prowse/James Earl Jones as Darth Vader—all characters inextricably linked with Williams’ music. All the Pulp of outer-space, light-sabres and whips transfused with the pomp and grandeur of the 19th Century.



Though he has written a number of concerti for solo instruments and been conductor laureate of the Boston Pops orchestra, John Williams was always a low Pulp film composer dabbling in high composing. Five years his junior, Philip Glass followed an almost inverted course to his Pulp status. Glass’ early influences in music came from modern masters such as Bartók and Shostakovich, as well as Western classical music such as Beethoven and Schubert’s B-flat Piano Trio. He studied the flute at the Peabody Conservatory, attended an accelerated University of Chicago program in mathematics and philosophy at age 15, and wrote a 12-note serialist string trio whilst studying there.



Moving to the keyboard at Juilliard, he won a coveted BMI Student Composer Award, studied the intricacies of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach’s scores and became inspired by the rule-breakers of French new wave cinema (Truffaut and Godard in particular). The beginnings of repetitive, minimalist compositions such as Music in Twelve Parts (1971-4) were strongly influenced by his experiences with Ravi Shankar, and Indian music and rhythm. As a Pulp synthesiser, Glass took influences from film and from the as-yet untapped wealth of ‘world’ music and integrated them into his studies of classical composition to produce a vastly new approach to the modern creative process.



This continued through the 80s and 90s with operas based on the lives of people (Einstein, Gandhi) from outside the musical sphere, and with the incorporation of popular music such as David Bowie’s albums Low and “Heroes” (both 1977) into polytonal symphonies. Operas were based on a Doris Lessing novel, Jean Cocteau’s films and Leonard Cohen’s poetry. The list of musical collaborators is long: Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, Natalie Merchant, Aphex Twin, David Bowie, Björk, The Dandy Warhols, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Iggy Pop. It was inevitable that a composer with such a penchant for popular iconic figures within the music and art worlds would come to film-scoring.



Almost accidentally, with 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi, Glass began writing for a number of documentaries and biopics. Candyman (1992), The Truman Show (1998), a new score for 1931’s Dracula, and his second Oscar nomination with The Hours (2002) now joined his pieces composed solely for performance.



But while movies like The Illusionist and Notes on a Scandal (2006, earning a third Academy nomination) cemented his popularity as a ‘big-name’ film composer, Glass became a figure whose Pulp syntheses were appropriated by filmmakers to lend artistic credence to their movies. His dense, polytonal sounds do not follow the traditional structures of movie composition, which relies all too often on bold, controlled emotions to direct their viewers’ reaction, and its synthetic nature means that the music is repetitive and minimalist: it does not work for bonding image to sound in the way that Williams’ does. As Ms Jones herself said, it was only when Glass’ almost-constant accompanying music in The Hours was out of place that it was noticeable.




Both John Williams and Philip Glass have brought Pulp to the masses from very different angles. Williams began his career at the centre of mass music, film and art in New York, and on top of the bedrock of 19th Century music he built high into low to make Richard Strauss space operas and adventure stories. Glass, doused in theory and blessed with a certain mathematical-musical genius, incorporated the modern wherever he found it into his theoretical background, pulling low modernity into high theory in order to synthesise Pulp and to create something modern.

For John Williams, his success with the masses made a film composer into a highbrow composer in the contemporary classical world. Philip Glass made his success with the moder mass media by incorporating them, and multiple elements of modernity, into his own theoretical framework and so became coveted by filmmakers to add some high to their low. But which is more important: a globally recognisable melody intrinsically linked to an image, or a synthesis of various elements of culture into something densely postmodern?

DLR 31.3.08


One Response to “PULP Profiles: John Williams & Philip Glass”

  1. Indy April 1, 2008 at 12:19 am #

    Well said, dear. Also, thanks for the credit. In my cold-medicine addled brain I can’t think of much more to add. The interesting thing about Glass is that he seems to consciously avoid any kind of memorable themes… his music seems (to sound very amateur) to be just a series of modulations and progressions with no apparent pattern, goal, or apex, whereas John Williams (about whom I have very unambiguous feelings, as you know) just produces a series of peaks with minimal connective tissue. But that’s beside your point.

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